October 09, 2006

Chomsky killed by interpreter?

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spoke approvingly of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, resulting in a massive uptick in sales for the book. (Tensor imagined what might have happened if Chávez had plugged another work of Chomsky.) It was also widely reported that Chávez spoke of Chomsky in a subsequent press conference as prematurely deceased. Here is how the New York Times presented the news:

Mr. Chávez ... brandished a copy of Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and recommended it to members of the General Assembly to read. Later, he told a news conference that one of his greatest regrets was not getting to meet Mr. Chomsky before he died. (Mr. Chomsky, 77, is still alive.)

The Times even spun out an entire follow-up story on the Twainian theme that reports of Chomsky's death were greatly exaggerated. But on Oct. 6, a belated correction was appended to both of the articles:

In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, "I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago." Two sentences later Mr. Chavez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.
Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.
Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.
Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation.

The video of the press conference is available from the UN Webcast Archives, with the relevant section occurring about 37 minutes and 30 seconds in. All that can be heard on the video (presumably what the Times and other news organizations relied upon) is the simultaneous translation of the U.N. interpreter in voiceover, not Chávez's own voice. ABC News Now (via LexisNexis) transcribed the interpeter's translation thusly:

(Through translator) You asked how to achieve the, overthrow the, of imperialism. The political work of Chomsky, which has been very important for many decades. I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky. An American professor who died some time ago. I wanted to meet that man, but he was aged. He was 90 years old. John Kenneth Galbraith, I have been reading him since I was child, and so Noam Chomsky. They are, these are great intellectuals of the United States. The people of the United States should read what they have written, much more than they do instead of watching 'Superman" and 'Batman and Robin" movies that delve people's and young people's minds....

As can be seen on the UN Webcast video, Chávez continued to hold up the copy of Chomsky's book, as he had done in his General Assembly speech, while the interpreter said, "I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky. An American professor who died some time ago..." The use of the prop likely misled the interpreter, who assumed "an American professor who died some time ago" referred to Chomsky, rather than the as-yet-unnamed figure of John Kenneth Galbraith. The interpreter's phrasing certainly makes it sound like Chomsky is the one that Chávez is eulogizing.

So it appears that the interpreter was relying on contextual cues during an on-the-fly translation to determine who the speaker was talking about. Little did she know that Chávez had already shifted his topic from Chomsky to Galbraith. (We can't hear the Spanish to know if there were any other clues to indicate a change in topic, but the Times correction implies that even in the original Spanish the discursive shift was subtle.) For any reporters listening to the simultaneous translation, or following the transcript later on, there was little indication that "an American professor who died some time ago," as well as subsequent deictics, ("that man", "he") coreferred with Galbraith instead of the already mentioned Chomsky. The Times correction also claims that "the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith." That makes it sound as if the interpreter omitted the reference to Galbraith altogether, but I think it simply means that the two referents were not clearly distinguished in the translation (as in the corrected version: "I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago").

Despite the life-or-death implications for Mr. Chomsky, this all seems like a typical translational snafu. Chávez supporters, however, would probably portray this as part of an American media conspiracy against the president. I see no such conspiracy, though I do wonder why it took the Times so long to issue a correction, if they were alerted to the error so soon after the first article was published. (By contrast, the BBC issued a correction on September 30, at least on its Spanish-language site.) Apparently it took a public castigation by the Venezuelan government for the Times to make its sheepish apology. Perhaps they had a fleet of bilingual fact-checkers on the case, carefully Zaprudering the Chávez video to determine what exactly was said. More likely, it was just the typical snail's pace of fact-checking at the Grey Lady, a process that one Times editor likened to "trying to drink from a fire hose or bail Lake Michigan with a teaspoon."

[Update, 10/14/06: CM of Working Languages helpfully points to his consideration of what Chávez actually said (video here), with a sharp critique of how news organizations relied on the faulty translation. At the time I wrote the above post, I hadn't been able to find any such analysis of the original Spanish. CM's post makes it quite clear that both the Times and the BBC did a terrible job both in their original reporting of the Chávez press conference and in their issuing of weak and belated corrections.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 9, 2006 12:02 PM